Current Issue

MCN Profile: thyssenkrupp Steel Services

The Long Game

By on
MCN Editor Dan Markham thyssenkrupp has saved money on skids by employing plastic separators for decades.

About 20 years ago, thyssenkrupp Steel Services explored an experimental alternative to wooden skids, a solid plastic tubing to use with sheet products. The system was borrowed from another company Brent Finley was employed with before joining thyssenkrupp.

Not only is that system of separating sheet products still employed at TK’s two Southeastern plants, but some of those initial tubing products are still in use.

“We have tubes today in service that are 29 years old. They’ve gone hundreds, if not thousands, of times to our customers to be reused over and over again,” says Finley, who serves as operations manager of thyssenkrupp’s facility in Richburg, S.C. 

Overall, he estimates, the company has between 5,000 and 10,000 of the profiles in use. 

Today, that product is carried by Denver, N.C.-based Tree Brand Packaging, a seemingly ironic name for a product made with little help from Mother Nature. The name derives from Tree Brand’s primary product line, wooden skids for a variety of industrial applications.

But it is the plastic products, which go by the TRU-RAIL name, that Tree Brand’s President Chris Helms has long believed fills a nice niche in the steel distribution industry, a line of work his father and company founder Al Helms once worked in. 

Chris Helms gives an honest appraisal of the product’s utility. He recognizes it is not for every service center, nor is it something that can be used to make skids. But for the right distributor, it can be a significant cost saver over the life of the product. 

“There are a lot of places it doesn’t work. I have to explain that. You can’t dispose of it. You can’t build pallets and skids out of it. But there are a fair amount of people who can use it.”

Companies that have bought in have found it to be an economical method of sending sheet products, either through the solid tubing products used by thyssenkrupp Steel Services or a hollow product employed by others in the steel industry. 

The benefits accrue over time and require willing partners. Companies in contractual arrangements, where the two parties want to preserve the relationship and work to ensure each other’s success, are ideal. 

The products ship from one of thyssenkrupp’s facilities, separated by the TRU-RAIL runners. In addition to supporting and spacing the products, they don’t absorb moisture, protecting against rust. Consequently, they also reduce the need for packaging.

But unlike wooden skids that may find their way to the dumpster not long after usage, TRU-RAIL products must ultimately be returned to the service center. thyssenkrupp Steel Services merely asks those customers to pile the runners in a single location, and TK will pick the lot up with a truck during a backhaul. The nature of the runners means many can fit in a truck, as you’re not hauling air the way you are with a wooden skid. 

When willing partners are found and utilized, the TRU-RAIL products will soon pay for themselves. Helms estimates you can get a return on an investment within a year if a sound program for their use is in place. 

“It’s a program you have to set up with the customers,” Finley says, noting that it takes some time to instruct the customer on the steps necessary, but that will soon be overcome. “For the customers who use them, it works very well. 

Customers to a T like them because it saves their dumpster sitting out back, not loaded with skids.”

The products come in two options. The solid runners/spacers are available in 1.75 inches by 2.25 inches solid with a strapping groove. They typically run 96 inches in length, but custom lengths are available up to 20 feet. 

The hollow product comes in two sizes, a 3.375-inch by 3.375-inch square, with 0.375-inch wall thickness, and a 5.375-inch by 5.375-inch with half-inch wall thickness. Each is available in lengths up to 20 feet.  

The benefits, Tree Brand claims, include superior product protection against rust; splinter-free handling for improved worker safety; sustainability; cut-to-length versatility; and space-efficient storage and staging. Additionally, the hollow product allows for companies to run a band through it, which Helms believes is a particularly appealing attribute to the service center crowd. 

The material also withstands most weather conditions. “You don’t want to leave it in the sun for three years, but you can leave it outside,” Helms says.

Finley, however, cautions that if left in haphazardly in the heat, the tubes can twist. “They conform to a Twizzler shape.”

Finley is very much a believer in the product’s positive attributes. “It’s an expensive upfront cost, but when you look at these tubes, shipping them 10, 20 a thousand times, it’s potentially less than a wood alternative would be. In addition, because there’s no moisture, the product doesn’t require additional packaging.”

The product holds up year after year, with some tubes having more than a million pounds total stacked on them. “If there’s a crush point, we haven’t found it,” Finley says. 

The ability to keep using the runners is the ultimate selling point. thyssen’s system calls for them to staple bands on the tubes before shipping. A close inspection of a tube shows hundreds of staples still lodged in place. “That shows the tube has made hundreds of trips to the customer,” he says. 

Helms hoped the dramatic upswing in lumber prices at the start of 2021 would trigger more interest in the product, but it surprisingly didn’t happen. But it doesn’t deter him from selling the value TRU-RAIL can deliver to the service center willing to think longer term. “They don’t take the time to see the value,” Helms said. “They’re looking a week ahead, not five years ahead.”

He remains realistic about its future. “I know plastic is not going to replace wood. It can’t. But it fills a niche.” 

TRU-RAIL products come in two profiles, the solid tubes used by thyssenkrupp and these hollow sections. (Photo courtesy Tree Brand Packaging)